Chapter 3: Forgiveness Sets You Free
To understand forgiveness, you must first understand what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not turning the other cheek. Forgiveness is not running away. Forgiving someone does not mean that you condone what the person has done, nor does it mean that you invite them to do it again. It doesn't mean that you don't want the offending person to be punished. It doesn't mean that you forget the offense, nor does it mean that by forgiving you tacitly invite bad things to happen again. It doesn't mean that you won't defend yourself.
So what does it mean? Forgiveness is one of those words that we assume we can define, but when asked we stumble. Before you read on, try it yourself. How would you define forgiveness?
The dictionary can help. My American Heritage College Dictionary defines "forgive" as, "To renounce anger or resentment against." It goes back to a Greek root word that means "to set free," as in freeing a slave. Ironically, when we forgive, the slave we free is ourselves. We free ourselves from being slaves to our own hatred.
According to the dictionary definition I just cited, in order to forgive we must renounce resentment or anger. We do not have to forget, ignore or condone anyone or anything. We just have to renounce our anger and resentment. Even doing that may seem impossible, especially if whom or what we are trying to forgive has hurt us deeply. How do you forgive murder, child abuse or any other horrible offense? How is anyone supposed to renounce anger and resentment in cases like those? How do you stop feeling what you are feeling, or at least how do you renounce what you are feeling? And exactly what does that word "renounce" mean?
Turning to the same dictionary, I look up "renounce," and find the following definition: "To reject, disown."
This helps. In order to forgive I am not required to cease to feel anger or resentment, only to renounce anger or resentment, which means to disown my anger and resentment.
This distinction is crucial, not just a nicety of language. One of the chief reasons that people don't try harder to forgive or be forgiven is because they think it is impossible. They think that forgiving means ceasing to feel anger, hurt or the desire for revenge. How can you forgive someone who has murdered your friend, ruined your career, taken away your spouse or hurt one of your children? If forgiveness means that you cease to feel any anger or resentment toward that person, then for most of us forgiveness is indeed impossible—if not immoral—when the injuries are severe.
Forgiveness has therefore taken on a daft quality for many people, or at least a quaintness, as if forgiveness were a sweet old lady—a sweet old idea, one to which we pay our respects but think of as fragile and weak, unable to help us do the heavy lifting of everyday life. For the heavy lifting we believe we need strong young men—ideas that pack a punch, like vengeance, retribution and that great masquerader, justice.
But that is wrong. Forgiveness is much stronger, not to mention much wiser, than vengeance or retribution, and it begets the best kind of justice. Forgiveness is not a sweet old lady but a strong, seasoned veteran of many wars. Forgiveness bears a greater burden than vengeance ever could. Vengeance lets hatred rule you. Forgiveness overrules hatred. Forgiveness is not only stronger; it is much more clever and wise than vengeance or retribution. Forgiveness takes intelligence, discipline, imagination and persistence, as well as a special psychological strength, something athletes call mental toughness and warriors call courage.
If you look back at the definition of forgiveness, you can see why so much more is required of a person to forgive than to take revenge. When you forgive, you renounce anger and resentment. You give up your claim to anger and resentment. You disown those feelings, you repudiate them, you turn your back on them. Above all, you cease to live under their rule. You are consciously, deliberately renouncing your claim to what you probably want more than anything in the world: retribution, vengeance, a chance to get even. Doing this takes immense courage and strength.
But forgiveness does not require that you cease to feel the anger and resentment you so naturally experience. Not at all.
This crucial distinction is what makes forgiveness humanly possible, albeit still strange and difficult.
What does it mean to give up your title to anger and resentment or to refuse to live under their rule? It means that you set yourself free from those feelings. You no longer let those feelings own you; you disown them. When you feel the yoke of hatred start to take you in its grip, you step out. You lift it off. You renounce it. You put on the yoke of love, instead.
When you've been hurt, why on earth would you do this? In order to improve your own life. As Joanna North, a philosopher and renowned expert on forgiveness, put it: "What is annulled in the act of forgiveness is not the crime itself but the distorting effect that this wrong has upon one's relations with the wrongdoer and perhaps with others."
Throughout her writing, North emphasizes how forgiving (or accepting forgiveness) makes people healthier and happier. As she says, "Through forgiveness the pain and hurt caused by the original wrong are released, or at least they are not allowed to mar the whole of one's being for all time"
On the other hand, holding onto your title to anger and resentment, as if it were a precious deed of ownership, is like holding onto your title to a polluted pond.
Now, return to what I asked before: If you know why you want to forgive, then how do you do it? How do you stop feeling what you are feeling? It is often not enough just to want to. How do you stop your anger from ruling you?
The definitions point the way. You do not have to stop feeling what you are feeling. That's impossible. However, you can refuse to act on those feelings by hurling hand grenades or insults, and you can refuse to welcome those feelings when they hungrily come to your door, hoping to feed on your fantasies of revenge.
Renouncing certain feelings is something we've all learned how to do. For example, we renounce our aggressive feelings when we are stopped by a traffic cop for speeding. We might feel like punching the cop's lights out, but we renounce those feelings, we do not act on them, we disown them, we repudiate them, we do not let ourselves live under their rule. We continue to feel them; the feelings are still very much with us. We simply renounce their control over us.
I shouldn't say "simply" because such renunciation requires strength, patience and skill. But we manage to do it, every day, not only with our aggressive feelings, but also with our sexual feelings, and even our feelings of hunger and thirst or the need to use the bathroom.
When we forgive, we may continue to feel anger and resentment, just as we may continue to feel anger and resentment at the traffic cop who stopped us. But, if we are wise, we put those feelings aside. We do not let them rule our actions.
Furthermore, we try not to welcome the feelings when they skulk back, looking to be nursed. That means when we think of the person who hurt us, we do not give in for very long to the temptation to dream up scenes of revenge or revel in methods of torture. You can luxuriate in imagined scenes of revenge, you can cuddle and nurse your angry feelings, but after a while you risk nursing those feelings into a monster that ends up destroying you, not your enemy.
Let's say you've been betrayed by a coworker, which led to your getting fired from your job. Do you really want to spend parts of the next five or ten years contemplating scenes of this person being humiliated, fired, rejected or in other ways hurt? For a little while, yes, you do. You should; you need to. But for months and years? Wouldn't that mean you gave that person more power over you than was good for you? Wouldn't that mean that the person had achieved a double victory: first by getting you fired, then second by infecting your free time with fantasies of revenge?
Try to think of feelings of anger and resentment as dangerous drugs—useful sometimes in small doses, but highly toxic as regular intake. Try to resist welcoming them into your imagination. They rarely do you good. They often do you serious harm.
When the vengeful feelings creep in, refuse to live under their rule, for your own sake.
Instead, be guided by the principle of love.
This is where forgiveness gets tricky. How can you love, or even like, someone who has hurt you? You naturally feel emotions quite different from love, be they fear, anger, resentment, dislike or even hatred. You cannot control what you feel, any more than you can control the weather. But you can control what you do with what you feel. You can renounce the rule of anger, resentment and hatred, and subscribe instead to the rule of love. This much you can control. This much you can consciously and deliberately decide to do.
Gradually, as you resist the rule of anger, you can develop empathy for your enemy. There is no one you can't develop something like love for if you know their whole story. I know that sounds like an awful stretch when you are talking about people who have done terrible deeds. In those cases, simply begin by letting the principle of love rule your actions, the principle of love for all humankind, not just love for your friends. Then, gradually try to understand where the evil came from. Try to understand how your enemy, who was once an innocent and loving infant, turned into such a monster. As you understand, your hatred will gradually subside, and in its place something like love will start to grow.